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In memory of Hank Skinner : “Hank was a fighter living in one of the worst places on earth”

On hearing of Hank Skinner's passing, ECPM joins in the grief of his family and friends, including his partner Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, a member of ECPM's Board of Directors from 2009 to 2022.
Hank Skinner in the screened room

Locked up on death row in Texas, Hank spent almost 28 years in solitary confinement, unable to leave his cell for more than an hour a day. He fought fervently for years, supported from the outside by his wife and lawyers, to clear his name. Accused of a triple homicide, he claimed his innocence until the last day. Facing an execution date for the fourth time, Hank finally passed away on 16 February 2023 after complications from a brain tumour.

ECPM has been supporting Hank from France since 2009, organising fundraising events and mobilising the press to raise awareness of the injustice against Hank.

ECPM soutenait Hank depuis la France depuis 2009, en organisant des levées de fonds et en mobilisant la presse pour alerter sur l’injustice dont Hank était victime.

We think back to this moment, to 24 March 2010, 13 years ago, when Hank Skinner, in the infamous Huntsville prison in Texas, was to be executed. We will always remember that evening when we all gathered on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, in front of the US Embassy, a few hours before Hank Skinner’s scheduled execution, and we continued to believe in it despite the minutes ticking by. Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, his wife and member of our board of directors, was live from Texas with our director, Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan. She was still confident. The actress Lou Doillon came to support us, and the activists, sympathisers and other partners of ECPM were all present, shouting their indignation. Hank survived 23 minutes from the execution.

More recently, Hank Skinner spoke at the 8th World Congress Against the Death Penalty last November in a letter read by his wife Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner

Hank was passionate about the law: our thoughts are also with those he accompanied and helped off death row, and with those executed by the State of Texas. His strength, friendship and love will continue to inspire us in our fight for the universal abolition of the death penalty.

A letter from Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, ECPM executive director

On 17 April 2022, Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, Director of ECPM, visited Hank Skinner. On his return from the visiting room, he wrote down this moment on paper, which he shares today.

Houston, Texas

April 17, 2022

To Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner,

Last night I went to visit Hank Skinner on death row in Livingston Prison, north of Houston near the beautiful Livingston Lake. This lake is a strange and quiet haven of peace just a few miles away from the epicenter of one of the most horrific faces of America, the official death penalty system.  Hank has spent more than 27 years on death row. He turned 60 last Monday. He hadn’t had a visitor since 2019 until the last few weeks when he saw his wife Sandrine, his lawyer Rob and an American journalist in a row. Now I’m adding to that list of last-minute visitors. Those who come from far away, from the other side of the Atlantic, to maintain a link with humanity.

The entrance of this prison looks like other high security facilities hosting thousands of prisoners, but add nearly 200 people on death row to this one (they were more than 500 a few years ago). One thing that struck me as I entered the notorious Polunsky Unit (death row) was how clinical the place looked. At first sight, very clean, so well maintained. The lobby looks like a waiting room of a private clinic…and yet so dirty behind the walls. There, next to the joke of the day (Q: What was the rabbit’s favorite dance? A: The bunny hop), the reference to World Autism Week (given the number of disabled people, autistic people behind bars, it aims at provocation). There was also this totally crazy maxim: “You have the choice to take the chance to challenge yourself to change”, as if death row really did offer a possibility of redemption and change!

Delusional and so American! You’ll tell me, they’re not that far off. In this room, I could see the faces of distress and poverty waiting next to me… at least that’s what I sensed.

I finally enter the visiting room. Through a glass window, via an 80s phone we were about to spend the evening together. Disconcerting feeling because I’ve been following Hank’s case for 13 years. It began in October 2009, a few months before the Geneva Congress against the death penalty, when Sandrine Ageorges told us that she was now called Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, after marrying a death row prisoner in Texas. She also told us that he had an execution date scheduled for the very first day of the World Congress we were hosting. We could not accept this without taking action. So the campaign that we have called #Justice4Hank began.

Hank and I had been pen pals for a while a long time ago. I had not been able to commit to a regular correspondence. Perhaps I was running away from it. This time our meeting was imminent. This was the first time I had set foot in an American prison, and even more so in a Texas death row. I have to admit that it was not easy to enter this crazy place where you witness the madness of the American judicial system, full of misery and death. To enter such a place when you don’t have to is something insane and at the same time absolutely necessary.

When I am finally allowed to enter the visiting room, it is around 6 pm. I head towards the cabins that we so often seen in films and documentaries. Hank is already there waiting for me. He has aged a lot. He wears a long white beard with a few red highlights (ZZ Top style!), marking his years of complete sensory isolation. He has not been able to touch any human being except the guards for almost 3 decades. He doesn’t have access to fresh air. He can’t open the window of his cell even during the sweltering, even suffocating Texas heat. His extremely sincere laughter marks me quite quickly during our conversation and his mischievous look is a hint that he is still part of the living and not a buried living man.

Hank has had 4 execution dates in his life. The first three times, he has had to prepare to die, accept his transfer to Huntsville Prison 45 miles further north towards Dallas, pack up his belongings, fold the few clothes he has impeccably, eat his last meal, say his last prayer. Despite all this, we spent over 3 hours (normally visits last less than 2 hours, but I was allowed to stay a little longer) chatting and laughing. And guess what I talked about! I told him about my “carbs and prots” diet, what is “smart” to eat and what is not. We talked about the health benefits of chillies and particularly jalapeños: a shared passion. It’s funny how in the worst place on earth we were able to talk about food and have this surreal but so banal, friendly discussion about our favourite dishes.

Suddenly, Hank asks me to remind Sandrine, his wife, to order a special Passover package on Amazon. I’m a bit confused. I ask him what about your beard and Pesach, did you convert to Judaism to get access to special packages? He laughs, and answers that he wrote in his file that he considered himself a messianic Christian! His messianism allows him for a moment in the year to access to a bit of decent food. The description of what he eats in prison seems worthy of the worst of the orphanages from a Dickens novel. We talked about spirituality, belief, childhood and current affairs. It’s amazing how he can keep up with international news for a guy who has almost no connection to the outside world, locked away in isolation for most of his life, and yet still cling to this world by following and being interested in what’s going on.

He also told me anecdotes about his paternal grandmother and his moments of connivance while watching the Twilight zone, which still today make him say that he has a special gift for perceiving occult things, what he calls “seeing beyond appearances”. We were able to go into more detail about his childhood, his grandmothers and his love for Sandrine, this “extraordinary story”, quoting him.

Before we parted after a very long conversation, he told me how good it was for him to be able to talk to a male friend, because he had been surrounded by women a lot. Even today, the people who visit him in prison are women (apart from his lawyers, whom he has seen twice in four years). As he was leaving, I asked him about his state of mind: he replied that he felt immense sadness about the great waste of his life and the suffering he had endured, but that he found a meaning to his life in the support he gave to other death row inmates, particularly support in their defence strategies. He has already helped dozens and dozens of prisoners, some of whom have even been freed. He is proud of this. Others have been executed over the course of so many years and others are still with him in the corridors.  He laughs one last time with his very rough teeth. Because he knows that whatever happens, he will emerge from this hell free. Free in his mind, free beyond appearances.

For a long time he has had little access to the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. A few days before our interview, he had the opportunity to see a performance in the prison compound by a certain Darleen, a singer who moved him to tears with her rendition of Crazy by Patsy Cline, a song he loves so much, coming from a native Virginian like him. He asked the chaplain to help him reconnect with the singer because he wants to write about how much good her show did him. The power of art and song on wounded souls. He tells me that he wants to be buried in Virginia because, along with France (his adopted country, which he knows so little about), it is the only country that speaks to him in any way.

Crazy, de Patsy Cline

For my part, Hank confirmed, if it were necessary, the humanity that lay behind those squalid walls. Hank Skinner is a fighter living in one of the worst places on earth. I understand a little better today, my friend Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, whom I’m going to meet again for a road trip through Texas from Livingston to Houston, then from Dallas to Beaumont.

Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan

And now?

Let’s keep up the good fight! Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner reminds us all that “Sadness is not an option and the best way to honor Hank’s memory is to act!“. To support death row prisoner’s families, help them get a lawyer, donate to the association Texas after violence project !